Even the Fastest Man Alive can’t outrun a trio of lazy screenwriters.
Breezy, superficially charming and disconcertingly derivative, the first episode of the new CW series, The Flash, takes the Scarlet Speedster’s classic Silver Age origin and dilutes it into something safe and familiar, a squeaky-clean YA drama engineered to serve as a sunnier supplement to the network’s darker, wildly popular Arrow while continuing the small-screen expansion of the DC universe. Despite its slick production values and an earnest, fresh-faced cast, the result is an entity whose very existence feels driven by brand extension rather than creative necessity. The same can be said for plenty of shows, especially those involving superheroes, but they’re not supposed to make it this obvious.
The pilot opens with the obligatory tragic backstory. 11-year-old Barry Allen (Logan Williams) is a budding science whiz who’s constantly on the run from a pack of schoolyard bullies. He complains about his slowness to his loving mother Norma (Michelle Harrison), who survives just long enough to dispense some Uncle Ben-approved wisdom — “It’s better to have a good heart than fast legs.” — before being ripped apart by a monstrous red and yellow vortex that materializes one night in the Allen family’s living room.
Despite Barry’s eyewitness account, Henry Allen (John Wesley Shipp, who played the Flash in the original 1990 series) is accused of his wife’s murder and sentenced to life in prison, prompting Barry to devote himself to forensic science in order to clear his father’s name. Sensing the boy’s potential, Detective Joe West (Jesse L. Martin) adopts Barry and raises him alongside his lovely daughter Iris (Candice Patton), which leads to the show’s only attempt at offbeat weirdness: a deeply awkward romance between adopted brother and sister.
Flash forward -— sorry, couldn’t resist — a few years and Barry, now played by the genially bland Grant Gustin, is a brilliant, socially graceless crime scene investigator in the Central City police force. After a lightning-assisted explosion at S.T.A.R. Labs leaves Barry in a five-week coma, he awakens to find he has developed super-speed and a host of other “metahuman” powers.
Inspired by the example of Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell), who protects the neighboring Starling City as a costumed vigilante known as the Green Arrow, the young man squeezes into a maroon speed-suit — because apparently bright red is too gauche for modern superheroes — and becomes the Flash, pledging to use his newfound abilities to help the innocent and thwart the dark and stormy ambitions of Clyde Mardon (Chad Root), a.k.a. the Weather Wizard, a sociopathic bank robber who can manipulate the weather thanks to the same explosion that transformed Barry.
The episode, directed by David Nutter, who previously helmed episodes of Game of Thrones and Homeland, and written by Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg and DC Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns, is a bloodless cycle of genre tropes whose cardinal sin lies in attempting to recast its hero as an off-brand blend of Clark Kent (the goofy do-gooder) and Peter Parker (the empowered nerd). The Barry Allen character, created by Robert Kanigher, John Broome and the legendary Carmine Infantino, has been a fan-favorite in the DC universe ever since his first appearance in the pages of Showcase #4 in 1956. He wasn’t the first hero to use the Flash moniker — that was Jay Garrick, a Golden Age character who drifts in and out of DC’s official continuity more often than Bat-Mite -— but he is consistently remembered as the most beloved incarnation of the character.
Allen was originally envisioned as a wisecracking charmer whose adventures doubled as an educational springboard to get kids interested in physics and chemistry — each issue typically revolved around the practical application of some scientific principle — while defying the popular stereotype of the scientist as an ineffectual weakling. Grant Morrison admired the character so much he moved metaphysical mountains to bring him back from the dead in the pages of the Scottish writer’s crossover opus Final Crisis.
Gustin’s portrayal of Barry, by contrast, has much more in common with Tobey Maguire’s performance as Peter Parker in Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man trilogy than with any previous version of the Flash. Like Maguire’s Peter, Barry is a discomfited, guilt-ridden outsider who only feels truly free when he’s wearing his costume. There’s even a scene where he discovers his newly enhanced physique — “Lightning gave me abs?” — that’s lifted directly from the first Raimi movie. All this indiscriminate sampling makes The Flash feel like a ham-fisted remix of every origin story we’ve seen in the last 14 years — and heaven knows we’ve seen enough of those.
The supporting cast does what they can to nourish the alarmingly thin material. Martin radiates noble exhaustion as Detective West, and the father-son scenes between Shipp and Gustin are steeped in believable regret. Root barely registers as the Weather Wizard, however, and Tom Cavanaugh feels utterly miscast as Harrison Wells, the enigmatic, wheelchair-bound head of S.T.A.R. Labs, an organization that plays a vital role in the DC universe. This was a part that called for the grit and gravitas of Brian Cox or Albert Finney, not the actor best known for playing Zach Braff’s brother on Scrubs. Important future players such as Rick Cosnett’s Eddie Thawne and Danielle Panabaker’s Dr. Caitlin Snow pop up and disappear so quickly they scarcely have time to make an impression, while Carlos Valdes’ engineering wunderkind Cisco Ramon is reduced to cheap comic relief.
So is the Crimson Comet already running on empty? Not necessarily. This is just a pilot episode and doesn’t necessarily reflect the direction the show itself will take. If they juice up the writing and avoid leaning on too many “Freak of the Week” supervillain introductions, the series could potentially bounce back. Remember, it took Arrow nearly a full season to figure out it wasn’t a small-screen version of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Based on what we’ve seen so far, though, The Flash is off to a sluggish start.